WASHINGTON -- The vaunted trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin tends to dominate any talk about the Nationals' rotation, but manager Dave Martinez has been adamant that another name belongs in the conversation: Aníbal Sánchez.
"Everybody talks about the big three that we have," Martinez said Sunday. "You could mention Aníbal as being one of the big four, because he was really good this year for us. Really good."
Indeed, Sánchez showed that he can rise to the level of his rotation mates on Sunday night, holding the Dodgers to one run over five innings in the Nationals’ 10-4 loss in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park.
Sánchez delivered the start Washington had been hoping for, striking out nine and departing with a one-run lead, but the Dodgers came back to score seven runs off Corbin and Wander Suero in the sixth to take a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five series and put the Nationals on the brink of elimination.
“Aníbal was at 87 pitches,” Martinez said. “He gave us all he had. We were at a good spot in the lineup where we thought Corbin could get through it. And his stuff was good. He's throwing 94 [mph], his slider was good, I think he left one ball up. But he had every hitter 0-2, he just couldn't finish.”
Sánchez hadn’t been the Nationals’ original choice to start Game 3. They had initially planned to have Scherzer pitch, but they decided to tweak their rotation plans after using their ace right-hander in a surprise relief appearance that helped them secure a 4-2 win in Game 2 on Friday. After splitting the first two games of the series, Washington preferred to give Scherzer an extra day of rest and save him for Game 4 on Monday, leaving Sánchez to start Sunday.
It’s unlikely Sánchez would have been trusted with such an assignment earlier this season. The 35-year-old veteran logged a 5.10 ERA over his first nine starts of the season before landing on the injured list with a hamstring strain in May. He returned after two weeks and enjoyed a remarkable turnaround, posting a 3.42 ERA over 123 2/3 innings in his final 21 starts.
“I think that a lot had to do with just getting consistent with his mechanics, using his lower half, and not trying to do too much,” Martinez said. “Utilizing all his pitches. When he does that, he's really good.”
The Dodgers tested Sánchez early on Sunday. He had not pitched for the Nationals since Sept. 25, and he initially showed rust from that extended layoff, battling command issues in a 28-pitch first inning. A leadoff walk to Joc Pederson, a single by Justin Turner and another walk by Corey Seager loaded the bases for the Dodgers with two outs, but Sánchez struck out A.J. Pollock on a 71-mph changeup to escape the jam unscathed. Sánchez used his changeup to great effect on Sunday, recording five of his nine strikeouts with the pitch.
“I know I can use my off[speed] pitch and just get out of the inning,” Sánchez said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I tried to hit the bottom of the zone with my breaking balls and get out of the inning. I know if I get out of the inning with no runs, I can stay longer in the game.”
Sánchez settled in after that, striking out the side in a perfect second. He worked around two-out hits by Turner and Gavin Lux in each of the next two innings to carry a shutout into the fifth. The lone blemish came when he misplaced an 0-2 fastball to Max Muncy, who hammered it out to right-center field to cut the Nationals’ lead to 2-1.
With Sánchez due to hit third in the bottom of the fifth, Martinez opted to lift him in favor of pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman and bring in Corbin to start the sixth, a move that ultimately backfired. Sánchez felt he could have pitched deeper into the game, though he said he understood the logic behind Martinez’s decision-making.
“If I had the opportunity to stay, of course, yes,” Sánchez said. “I feel really good. I was strong at that point. I don’t know how many pitches I threw today, but I think it’s no more than 85 pitches at that time. I still feel strong by the time that I was pulled out.
“I’m not a good hitter. I think every time they have an opportunity for a pinch-hitter for me, especially in those situations, I think every move is important in those games.”